If nice guys finish last, the biggest SOBs must finish first, right?
Well, if your name is Robert Frank, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”
The cover story in the July 2 New York Times Magazine name Frank “the most influential photographer alive.” In the process of making that case, author Nicholas Dawidoff also paints a portrait of a misanthrope of epic proportions.
Both assessments have much merit.
Frank’s great achievement was the publication of The Americans, 83 photographs culled from the tens of thousands he shot as he crisscrossed the country on a Guggenheim fellowship in the mid-1950s.
Initially, the book was hardly a success. Indeed, Frank could not find an American press willing to publish it. Les Américains was first published in 1958 in Paris, where it found a sympathetic audience among left-wing intellectuals hostile to post-war American hegemony.
The first edition did not even carry a photograph by Frank on the cover; instead, a Saul Steinberg drawing graced it. The French edition also contained numerous writings by well-known authors, including Simone de Beauvoir and William Faulkner, and some critics felt these overshadowed the pictures. It wasn’t until 1959 that a U.S. edition was printed by Grove Press. In that case, the French edition’s texts were removed entirely, a forward was written by Jack Kerouac, and a photograph by Frank appeared on the cover.
That first American edition enjoyed limited success, but Kerouac’s introduction was instrumental in introducing Frank’s work to a small but sympathetic audience here. The second edition, printed in 1969, achieved tremendous success and established Frank’s place among the most influential photographers of his time.
The work was revolutionary, but its timing was also critical.
Unlike earlier “street photographers” like Cartier-Bresson or “documentarians” like Walker Evans, Frank was not interested in order, structure, decisiveness, or public policy. (Actually, Evans wasn’t interested in the latter either, but he produced some of his most important work under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration.)
Rather, Frank’s was a gruff, sharp-eyed and -tongued look at the underbelly of American society. He eschewed beautiful prints or, at times, even focus and perspective correction, to stare unflinchingly at the otherness of America, that is, the America that ended up on the metaphorical cutting room floor of the exhibition The Family of Man, which opened the same year Frank began his American sojourn.
Frank, a curmudgeon from an early age, openly disdained the sort of thinking that saw humankind as one big, happy family. He held institutions in general in contempt and professed disdain for the trappings of success even while he benefited financially from the acclaim he received and the support they provided.
The Times Magazine piece also makes it clear he was a lousy husband and even lousier father, as well as an unpredictable friend as likely to turn on you as not — neither of which, of course, precludes greatness in art.
Whether or not Frank consciously perceived the sea change about to get underway in America (and the argument can be made that as a foreigner he was in a unique position to do so), he did exploit two converging movements in the late 1960s in America. As the hippie movement expanded, American youth hit the road in record numbers not seen since the migrations of the Great Depression — the difference being that in the later period road trips were more often than not elective. Kerouac’s On the Road had been published a decade earlier, but by the time of the second printing of The Americans, it seemed as though everyone was headed for Haight-Ashbury or a commune in New Mexico or some music festival on some farm in upstate New York.
The other element of the zeitgeist coinciding with the second printing of The Americans was the antiwar, antiestablishment mood. The American dream had soured badly, and youth openly rebelled at racial and economic inequalities and the imperial arrogance of the best and the brightest. The Americans became a kind of visual anthem for a rebellious generation newly attuned to the outliers in its midst.
Meanwhile, Frank abandoned photography, and eventually New York, for film and rural life in Nova Scotia. He also divorced his first wife and more or less abandoned his children. Now celebrated in both the art and photography worlds (they were still seen as largely separate in those days), Frank nevertheless disdained elitism and high culture. “Once respectability and success become a part of it, then it was time to look for a new mistress,” he wrote in 1969. Occasionally he would appear in issues of Creative Camera — a short-lived photography magazine — writing his "Letter from New York", a missive so vitriolic and bitter regarding the art scene, the editors dropped it.
Frank no longer made photographs. He was spent, having said all he had to say in that medium. Dawidoff quotes more than a few indie filmmakers who insist that even had Frank not established himself as one of the gods of photography, his influence and reputation in film would suffice to secure his reputation. His films never achieved a significant audience. Pull My Daisy, his first film, enjoyed the most “success,” but not for its disjointed, rough, unorthodox appearance and “celebrity” cast of beat personalities. Rather, it was seen as a cultural document of irreverent hijinx.
Today, 90 years old and, as documented in Katy Grannan’s marvelous photographs, which accompany the article, disheveled in the extreme, Frank lives in New York part of the year. He still likes to hurl barbs at the self-important and entitled, but he knows the value of his name and his work as a photographer and isn’t above capitalizing on these when it suits him.
(This article first appeared in the Broad Street Review)